Garden Forever
Horticultural Therapy - Create an Enabled Garden by Joyce Schillen

Gardening is an activity I take for granted every now and then. I don’t have to think twice about bending over to pull a weed or squeezing the handles on a pair of pruners. Not everyone is so fortunate, as I am reminded when occasional twinges here and there remind me that joints do wear out.

For many people, what once were simple tasks can become obstacles to practicing favorite activities such as gardening.

Arthritis, back injuries, disabilities caused by accidents, and other health problems can make gardening difficult if not impossible for some people to do without special consideration. The ironic thing is that people with health problems are the ones who could benefit most from working in a garden.

The therapeutic benefits of gardening have been well documented for some time now. Formal programs called horticultural therapy recognize and use the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of gardening to help their patients. What about you when you come home after a hard day? Doesn’t it feel good just to hang out in the garden, putter with a few plants, rip weeds from the pathways?

Fortunately for people struggling with possible limitations, gardening is an activity that can be adapted for all sorts of special needs, from raised beds for people in wheelchairs or using walkers, to gardens for the blind that appeal to the other senses.

Common sense will help you design an “Enabled Garden” that is easily accessible to all.

First of all, keep the garden in scale with the enabled gardener’s preferences, motivation, and skill level. Something on the smaller side usually works best at first so as to not be overwhelming or discouraging.

For people in wheelchairs or using walkers, provide smooth, wide pathways with multiple spaces allowing for individuals in mobility scooters to maneuver. Make sure beds are built high enough to reach into easily. Design beds so that the center can be reached comfortably without stretching.

Twelve inches is a good depth for planting boxes, but remember that wet soil is heavy. Construction must be sound. Shallower boxes are sufficient for many plants such as annual flowers and herbs.

Provide a place for tool storage that is close to the garden, either a small shed, a cabinet, or even a large mailbox mounted on a fence or fencepost, or on the edge of an elevated garden bed. Adapt tool pouches into hanging pouches that can be hung from wheelchairs, walkers, and the edges of raised beds.

Keep an eye out for tools that make tasks easier. Garden centers, gardening catalogs, and specialty catalogs are good places to look for specially adapted hand tools.

Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses and mulches around plants to cut down the time required for general maintenance such as watering and weeding. Provide a convenient source of water close by the garden.

And maybe most importantly, furnish a resting area where gardeners can find respite from the sun and simply enjoy being in the garden.

Making Gardening Easier

Here are some tips on enabled gardening from the Washington State University Master Gardeners:

  • Tie a cord around the handles of small tools to make retrieval easier if they are dropped.
  • Use gloves to protect hands and help maintain your grip on tools.
  • A large magnifying glass helps to see small plants and seeds.
  • Wear an apron or smock with large front pockets to carry seed packets and tools.
  • Use a piece of light-weight plastic pipe to help you sow seeds without bending over.
  • Carry a whistle. A short blast can alert others if you need help.
  • Rig hanging planters with a pulley to lower them for watering.
  • Grow vining varieties of peas and beans that can be trained up a trellis to make harvesting easier.
  • To limit bending and stooping, use containers or raised beds for planting.
  • Eliminate the need to lug water hoses or containers around by placing soaker hoses or drip irrigation in garden plots.
  • Choose plants that appeal to senses other than sight. For instance, plants with differently textured leaves: soft like lamb’s ears or rough like heliotrope. Scented plants such as herbs and fragrant flowers. Plants to listen to when they rustle in a breeze.

Coping with Arthritis

Jan McNeilan, consumer horticulture agent with the Oregon Master Gardener Program at Oregon State University, offers these suggestions for people suffering from arthritis.

  • Garden in raised beds or containers that minimize bending and stooping.
  • Containers can be moved around for convenience.
  • Select plants carefully according to the gardener’s wants or needs. Consider the plant's height, expected life span, and the amount of attention and special care it needs, including watering and spraying.
  • Make work areas accessible. Make gardening walkways three feet wide, with a non-slippery surface. Build handrails or hand grips where possible.
  • Use equipment that is easy on the body. Use foam pads when kneeling. Purchase light-weight tools with large handles. Buy gloves that are large enough to insert foam padding to ease joint pain and foster better gripping. Mechanical “click” seeders and seed tape eliminate the need to grasp tiny seeds. Specially adapted tools for easy grip are available at garden shops, nurseries, and from gardening catalogs.
  • Use a sprinkler large enough that it will water the whole area and won’t have to be moved around.
  • Pace yourself and don’t overdo. Take a rest now and then.
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Horticultural Therapy - Create an Enabled Garden is a copyrighted article (1997) by the author, Joyce Schillen, who has kindly given Garden Forever permission to publish it on our website. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of Joyce Schillen is strictly forbidden.